The arrival of “The Sopranos” in 1999 can be credited with ushering in the current era of television, which has become a golden age for scripted programs. These series have breathed new life into adult drama, a genre that had been expiring in the movies.
These series have also proved to be a gold-laying goose for playwrights, whose financial condition typically tilts toward penury. Today 487 scripted shows are in production at 61 cable networks and streaming services. That many scripts means paychecks for a passel of writers. Many of those writers have come from the ranks of playwrights.
Warren Leight (pronounced “light”) is a good example of this career shift. The 61-year-old writer cut his teeth in theatre before sidestepping to the lucrative land of television. His best known play, Side Man, won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Side Man tells the story of a woman married to a jazz musician as the world of jazz, her marriage and her mental health are all falling apart. Side Man is thinly veiled autobiography; Leight’s father was a jazz trumpeter and his New York childhood was not acquainted with financial security. I can recall an excellent production of Side Man at Seattle’s ACT Theatre in 1999, featuring John Procaccino in the role of the musician-father.
In a recent interview Leight told New York stage producer Ken Davenport that his original career goal was journalism, which he had majored in at Stanford. One of his professors there was Tobias Woolf, the famous author who has written about his hardscrabble youth in the Skagit River valley north of Seattle.
After graduation Leight moved back to New York and rented a dive in a six-floor walkup. His neighbor was a drug dealer with three German shepherds. Needing $600 a month to survive, he hustled for any writing jobs he could find to make that nut. For $1,200 he wrote the script for a horror movie, “Mother’s Day.” He can still quote a line from a review of that film: “It’s as if there were a force in the universe, heretofore unknown, known as anti-talent.” In the 1980s an all-girl cabaret troupe known as the High Heeled Women hired him at ten dollars an hour to write material and lyrics for them. Their piano player was Marc Shaiman, later to become famous for his work on the musical Hairspray and many films. Working with the High Heeled Women gave Leight his first taste of writing for an audience. He found the immediacy of that appealing.
To survive as a writer he was booking 50 to 75 jobs a year. He did a lot of one-off journalism along with script doctoring for horror movies that were already in production and desperate for help. “Inadvertently I was learning every aspect of movie, TV and stage production.” He recalls one of his plays being presented without a set because when the check paying the designer bounced, the designer walked, taking the set with him. He was also doing stand-up, thinking he might make that his main gig. Leight performed at the West Bank Café where future comic Lewis Black (at the time aspiring to be a playwright) was hosting.
His first serious stage work was collaborating with composer-lyricist Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) on a musical titled Mayor about former mayor Ed Koch. But his breakthrough didn’t happen until 1998 with his play Side Man.
In the aughts Leight ventured into television as a freelance writer. Then, on a recommendation from playwright Theresa Rebeck, he was hired as a writer/producer for the series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” In 2008 he left “Criminal Intent” to be the showrunner (a TV series’s head writer) for HBO’s “In Treatment.” In 2011 Leight became the showrunner for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Leight explained to Davenport that when he was showrunning TV series the schedules were so intense that his own writing process was irrelevant. Now that Leight is no longer a showrunner, his writing process is, as he terms it, “a disaster.” Left to his own devices, he is a binge writer. “When I’ve forced myself to write in a more regulated way, inevitably the first 60 pages of a script take me six weeks, the next 30 pages take me one week, and the last 30 pages one night. Then I go back and rewrite the first 90 pages because the last 30 pages are so much better than the first 90. My process is to get to a fever pitch of self-loathing and then binge.”
Asked about the differences between writing for TV and stage, Leight claims the theatre world is more snobbish. “My experience in TV has been that once they find out you’re capable, they throw the work at you. It’s less of an exclusive club than theatre. I went from never having watched an hour-long TV show to writing for ‘Law and Order’, then four years later I was showrunning ‘Law and Order.’ After Side Man won the Tony a lot of theatres that had turned it down still weren’t eager to read my next play. Some told me that despite the Tony they didn’t think Side Man was very good.”
“Typically, in TV you have to plot much more, be more aware of structure. You have 42 minutes to tell your story.” He thinks TV writers could learn to write more from character and theme, as is done in theatre, whereas playwrights could do a better job of making the audience want to know what happens next. “A smart dramaturg once told me that every time you have a choice between a scene of ambience and a scene of action, go with the action. I think that sometimes because playwrights own their script they forget to tighten it up. You can’t really be precious in a 42-minute TV show the way you can with a play.” He still sees most of what goes up on Broadway. “My problem now is that everything I see I think I could cut out 40 minutes.”
He doesn’t believe story ideas are necessarily transferable among the three mediums. Side Man he says would not have worked as a TV series. “By the end of that play we know those characters well. We don’t need to tune in next week to learn more about them.” Movies tend to be more of a hero’s journey, he says.
Sometimes he’ll start noodling on a script without knowing what the thing will be and about two-thirds in he’ll go, “Oh this isn’t a pilot for a TV show; it’s a screenplay. The question is, Is this the satisfying arc to one story or is it more the Dickensian model where we’re going to live in this world for a while and get to know these people?” The first is a movie, the second a series.
He does not miss the pace of getting plays produced. “[Now] I can’t stand writing something and then waiting a year for a reading and then waiting another year for maybe a production. Side Man took forever to get a production. It was turned down by every major theatre in New York.”
As to what advice he would give to a writer early in their career, he says the smart money now would be to move to L.A. and get a job in a writers’ room, any job. He adds however, “I don’t know that you can force your career or predict it. The main lesson you can take from my career is to just keep going. You pick yourself up and keep going. It would have made sense to quit after that first horror movie review.”
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